What’s a best practice, and how can I get one?

courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/navanco

If you talk to customers for any length of time, you’ve probably been asked, “what’s the best practice for that? And how can I get you to deliver best practices to me?” I often struggle with this question because o the definition of a “best practice” may vary depending upon who’s asking and the act of asking for a best practice – I think – is really something like “show me the process of getting to a best practice for the activity that I want to do.”

Wikipedia lists the definition for a best practice as:

A method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark. In addition, a “best” practice can evolve to become better as improvements are discovered. Best practice is considered by some as a business buzzword, used to describe the process of developing and following a standard way of doing things that multiple organizations can use. (source)

This is not a post for those who are seeking ISO 9001 certification – this is a discussion for the rest of us: how, exactly, do you get closer to a best practice, know when you’re close to getting there, document it, and improve upon it?

I propose a modest idea: that the process of getting to a “best practice” is actually something very close to the Agile idea of testing, acting, and measuring. Let’s name it in a less geeky way, like “evaluating”, “interacting”, and “enhancing” as the steps of a process to take an idea, determine what the success might look like when you finished it, actually walk through the procedure, and then evaluate whether you were anywhere near close to the mark.

These are actually small decisions (almost like Minimum Viable Decisions), and they might look like the following:

Evaluating – this is the step where you understand and quantify your business problem. An example might be: “How can we figure out how many widgets we sell in a month that are related to inbound visits to our web site,” or “we’d like to figure out how to get a new user in our software service to be proficient at adding a business rule more quickly.” The description looks a lot like an Agile product story, where you try to determine the actors who do things, the system that they use, and the results they qualitatively might like to see.

Interacting – this is the next step, where you think about the “happy path” of how a user who solved that problem might actually interact with your system to provide a solution. For some solutions, you might require a system configuration, e.g. putting a persistent invite code in a web page so that you can track unique sales that happen through your web site. Or it might be a softer interaction, like documenting the procedure for creating a business rule (and also generalizing the problem that you are trying to automate in your system by using business rules.

And finally, you need to enter the enhancing step, where you test whether your hypothesis made any sense and the resulting actions taken by the customer, the system (or perhaps some combination of the two of them acting together) produced something like the desired result. And more importantly, how often did this go right? How often did it go dreadfully wrong?

The best practice is the logical result of a process or procedure that allows you to enter this sequence of decisions and end with the desired business result. So if you actually get sales from your website the way you expected, or the customers you walked through this process were more successful in creating a business rule, then great! Now you need to test-run this “best practice” candidate with other customers who don’t have the benefit of you walking them through the whole process step by step. And you need to test it with at least 30-40 trials to rule out simple bias. When you get to the end of that process and your “best practice” still seems to work, congratulations! That’s one in a row.

Note that during your enhancing step, an important thing to consider is how the customer felt about the process. It’s not always easy to capture this emotion, and the customer often expresses it as “it felt too hard,” or “I don’t get it,” or “I don’t see why this would be useful to me.” (among a host of other responses you might get.) Boiling that response down to actionable concrete steps to improve the process is feedback gold. Ask for the one thing they would like to change (just one thing) and you’ll get closer to it.

What’s the point of trying a beta product?

Beta Customers are the Best Test Customers You Have

photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/roadsidepictures/

In Steve Blank’s excellent blog post on Startup First Principles, he describes a startup as “an organization built to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” A key driver in building a repeatable and scalable business model is to find the kind of (friendly and unfriendly) customers who are not only willing and able to try partially completed software but also capable of providing relevant, actionable feedback. These beta customers might not be your ultimate customers – or they might be exactly the customers you’re looking for – and finding them and getting them to try beta products is a key requirement to give you the information you need to make business decisions.

When thinking about beta customers – especially early in the cycle of creating ideas and getting feedback on those ideas – Continue reading “What’s the point of trying a beta product?”

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